Monday, 30 April 2012

H P Lovecraft: advice columnist

Very few people realise that H P Lovecraft made money on the side as an advice columnist.  Here's a sample:
Dear Howie,
Last week I received a “you probably don’t remember me” note from a man I went to a school dance with nineteen years ago. He is married and has three kids, but states he is not happy. What should I do?
Concerned Lady 

Dear Concerned Lady: –
Although humankind has a yearning toward whatever is redolent of mystery and allurement, it is well that certain lacunae in our knowledge should remain forever unfilled. Your shadowy correspondent’s mention of the ill-regarded numbers nineteen and three recalls an unutterable experiment performed on sticklebacks by the Swedish icthyologist Dalgaard. I dare not describe his observations, but he concluded that, the longer we can remain innocent of our place in the cosmos, the better it must augur for our mental integrity. He came to understand there was more meaning than is commonly supposed in the nebulous half-inscriptions found on abandoned wharves — while who knows what malign significance underlies the latest findings on the growth of angiosperms, or the cycle of the solar spots? What of the transgalactic pulsings that have cost more than one astronomer his powers of reasoning? I have heard it whispered that the imprints found on Dalgaard’s pillow, toward the end, resembled the fronds of a kind of bracken previously unknown to botany. The muffled clattering sounds from my roof impel me hastily to conclude,
Yrs most cordially & sincerely, – HPL.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Review: Lallia

Lallia by E C Tubb (1971)

Earl Dumarest needs to get off planet fast and when he sees a ship's handler killed in a bar fight he tracks down the man's ship and signs on for the suddenly vacant post.  However, the ship in question turns out to be a decrepit tramp freighter with a fatalistic captain that is bound for a treacherous region of space known as the Web.  What at first seems like just a bad choice of ships soon turns into a life and death struggle as Dumarest fights for the life of a woman accused of witchcraft on a backwards world and the growing realisation that someone is on his trail for some mysterious reason.

The sixth volume in the Duamrest Saga, Lallia is a change of pace from the standard formula of Dumarest landing on a planet and getting caught between a struggle for survival and the machinations of the galactic nobility.  Here, most of the action takes place aboard a spaceship that is one passage away from the scrap heap–if it doesn't break up on the way.  It's a hard, constricted life of going from one planet to the next in search of profitable cargoes, dubious passengers and crew mates who range from the idealistic young steward to the murderously alcoholic engineer to the weirdly spiritual navigator and the captain who has been so crushed by the enormity of space that he can't bear to look at it.  Along the way, Dumarest becomes involved with Lallia, another traveller like himself who falls in love with him.  It's unclear whether he shares that love, but he does accept her as a companion and possibly a wife with whom he can settle down.  This being a Dumarest novel, neither happens and while he receives another clue as to the whereabouts of Earth, he also learns more about the secret he never knew he possessed and has made him a hunted man.

Lallia is a neat little gear shift for the saga.  The villain of the piece is no surprise, though the logic of the plot and its resolution is neat and clean. We also get a chance to see Dumarest in an environment that isn't one of constant crisis, but one where we can see more of his personality; his likes and dislikes as well as the wary hardness that separates him from his fellow man.

A lean spare adventure, it's also one of the strongest in the series so far.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Review: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008)

From my review of the film The Hunger Games:
In a dystopian future America, the nation has descended into a brutal dictatorship divided into twelve districts that exist to serve the needs of the decadent inhabitants of the Capitol. As part of their programme of control, the government requires that each district send two children between the ages of twelve and 18, selected by lottery, to participate in a bloody last-man-standing gladiatorial game. Kaitness volunteers to participate in the games to act as a substitute for her sister, who has been selected in the lottery, and it sent off to the Capitol where she is introduced to a bizarre contest that is half show business and half fight-to-the-death.
No point in doing a synopsis twice when the film tracks the basic plot of the book so closely.

The first thing to say about The Hunger Games is that it was the first part of a planned trilogy, which is already one strike against it.  J R R Tolkien's publishers have a lot to answer for.  The Lord of the Rings was always intended to be a single book, but the publisher insisted on breaking it into three volumes and now everyone thinks that trilogies are the way to go.  Maybe for publishers, but for readers they're a pain in the fundament–especially when the writer doesn't know what he's doing and leaves you scratching your head over volume three because he can't be bothered to recap the action from one and two.

Anyway, Hunger Games.  Better written than Harry Potter (though a curry menu could manage that) infinitely less annoying than Twilight, but still a long way from justifying its baffling popularity.  Let's start with the good bits.  Collins can string together an acceptable sentence and she does have some understanding of her craft.  Her writing is clear and lucid, much of her imagery is charming and she does master the first-person, present tense style well.  She can pace her individual scenes, though the book as a whole drags badly, and she has clearly put a lot of time and energy into her world.

Her heroine is also well conceived.  She could have been that horrid creation Action Girl, who is as tough as any man and can cold-conk a drill sergeant three times her size with a left hook, but Collins is wise enough to make her a poacher with hunting and woodcraft skills that make up for being a girl in a situation that calls for Andy McNabb, not Andy McDowell..  Also, it's made clear that without her bow, she's a pretty vulnerable individual. Collins is also wise enough to keep her hero Peeta badly wounded and feverish for the last part of the book.  That way Katniss can plausibly take the dramatic lead of the story without making her paramour look like an utter weed.

That being said, however, much of that effort is wasted.

Let's take the basic premise; the gladiatorial contest known as the hunger games and the world in which they take place.  Both of these are so standard that its a wonder that there isn't a keystroke shortcut for writing them, but Collins had a lot of trouble here.  Her back story is overly complex and the way she designed the games is so convoluted and easy to subvert that she makes a basic writer's error; she was unwilling to step back, rip the lot to shreds and start over.  Instead. it's obvious that very early on she kept coming across flaws in her world that rather than correcting, she merely papers over or stuffs with equally weak material until the final product is an overly complex mass that never holds together.  I'm not saying that she needed to pen a complete, dauntingly researched history and ethnology ala Tolkien.  Quite the opposite.  She should have kept it simple enough that it can be explained in throwaway dialogue, allusions and incidents.

An example of this is District 12.  Why doesn't it have a name?  Why doesn't the Seam?  Or the Meadow?  Or even the Capitol, come to that.  Are proper names abolished in the future?  More to the point, there's almost nothing that gives us a sense of time and place.  District 12 as described in this book could just as easily be set in 1930 as in the future year of whatever.  Compare this to the economical style of E C Tubb in the Dumarest books.  Dumarest often finds himself on harsh worlds with a very primitive standard of living, but Tubb keeps reminding us that this is the future by pointing out that the beggar's bowl is made of plastic and that the guards have laser guns.  The setting may be medieval, but we never forget that it's the future.  With Collins, we rarely get that.  In fact, there's very little science fictional until late in the book aside from the general dystopian setting.

The other problem is that the plot is so thunderingly predictable.  From the very first plot point you know exactly what is coming next and can almost predict when.  I spent three quarters of the book hoping for some sort of twist, some spanner in the works to liven things up, but it never comes.

It also doesn't help that Katniss fails as our guide.  Normally, the protagonist in this sort of story is discovering the world along with the reader, so as she's introduced to this strange, new place, so are we.  But Katniss is completely familiar with every aspect.  She knows exactly what everything is and why.  It would be nice if once and awhile she'd let us in on it.  Still, this does dovetail with another problem, which is that Katniss never sounds like a teenager from Appalachia.  She sounds like a university educated, middle-aged woman who worked in television a lot.  Sort of like... Oh.

In all, The Hunger Games isn't a disastrous book.  In many ways, it's very good, but it compares poorly to, for example, Heinlein's juveniles where you had a much better sense of the man inside the boy and where the story telling is much more efficient and focused.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Rejection payback

Author Norman Maclean has the chance of rejecting the overtures of a publishing who rejected his earlier work and revels in it:
You must have known that Alfred A. Knopf turned down my first collection of stories after playing games with it, or at least the game of cat's-paw, now rolling it over and saying they were going to publish it and then rolling it on its back when the president of the company announced it wouldn't sell. So I can't understand how you could ask if I'd submit my second manuscript to Alfred A. Knopf, unless you don't know my race of people. And I can't understand how it didn't register on me – 'Alfred A. Knopf' is clear enough on your stationery.
But, although I let the big moment elude me, it has given rise to little pleasures. For instance, whenever I receive a statement of the sales of 'A River Runs Through It' from the University of Chicago Press, I see that someone has written across the bottom of it, 'Hurrah for Alfred A. Knopf.' However, having let the great moment slip by unrecognized and unadorned, I can now only weakly say this: if the situation ever arose when Alfred A. Knopf was the only publishing house remaining in the world and I was the sole remaining author, that would mark the end of the world of books.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Cover: Red Planet

1st ed. 1949
Nice, but I prefer the first edition cover from 1949

Monday, 23 April 2012

Review: The Call of Cthulhu

"The Call of Cthulhu" by H P Lovecraft (1928)
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
So begins one of  the most influential stories in weird fiction and the seminal work of what would come to be known as the Cthulhu Mythos.  The narrator of the tale is going through the papers of his great uncle, who died under circumstances that, at the time, weren't suspicious.  However, as our protagonist pieces together the clues, he discovers that his uncle had stumbled on upon a terrible danger that has threatened the existence of mankind since the dawn of time and a horrible cult serves this evil.  

"The Call of Cthulhu" is a world-spanning story that goes from the Arctic to the swamps of Louisiana to the uncharted reaches of the South Seas.  Lovecraft's method is to slowly reveal the mystery through a collection of  artifacts, newspaper articles, diaries and interviews that begins with a strange carving and an account of people having odd dreams and then progresses on to weirder and more horrifying episodes as each layer is peeled away.  The result is that the reader is slowly drawn into this terrible, unfathomable universe where man has no place, yet where any who discovers this secret places his life in peril.  All this builds to a climax set at what can only be described as an outpost of Hell; a place where all reason and morality vanishes into the Abyss.  

As with most of Lovecraft, the prose can be a bit overdone and his protagonists seem as resilient as overcooked spaghetti, but if you're willing to buy into his conventions, the ride is worth the bargain.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Rejection Generator

Tired of having to write stories in order to receive rejection letters?  Then use the handy Rejection Generator and cut out the middle man.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Amazon Bond

Amazon secures the exclusive North American publishing rights to the James Bond novels.

Rival book sellers are both shaken and stirred.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Monday, 16 April 2012

Review: Subversive

"Subversive" by Mack Reynolds (1962)

The Free Enterprise company is offering a new business model by completely eliminating the middle man and providing goods directly to the consumer, but the men tasked with suppressing this sort of thing are watching.

Whatever his merits as a writer, this is a short story where Mack Reynolds Marxist views completely overwhelm his fiction.  Despite its meagre sci fi trappings, this is really just a sugar coated lecture on the long discredited Marxist theory of added value.  That is, the idea that most of the price we pay for goods is nothing but pointless costs added on to the "real" value by an army of middle men, such as advertisers, shippers, packagers and so on.  It would require a dry lesson in basic economics about how the "real" value of a thing is a question of supply and demand and that most middlemen do add value to their goods–if for no other reason than that without them, for example, you'd have farmers with barns filled with rotting produce while families starved to death.   But this is a review, not Econ 101, so we'll let that pass.  Needless to say, the lecture is a dry and often misleading and the procedural plot that it's wrapped in proceeds to a twist ending that was laughable even during the Cold War. 

Still, it would be interesting to find out what Reynolds would have made of ecommerce.  Probably result in a paradigm shift without a clutch.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Review: The Colour Out of Space

The Colour Out of Space by H P Lovecraft

A meteorite lands in the Gardner farm outside of Arkham, Massachusetts, but this is no stony or iron/nickel visitor from the stars.  This one is soft like putty, is shrinking by the hour and gives off a colour that is impossible to describe in earthly terms.  Shortly after being examined by scientists from nearby Arkham University, the meteorite dwindles to nothing and over the coming months strange things start happening on the farm as plants and animals start to mutate, the Gardner family become more sickly and everything takes on the strange, glowing colours of the thing from space.  It soon becomes apparent that what is happening isn't a simple poisoning or radiation, but that something has infested the farm and is living in the well.

One of Lovecraft's early classics, "The Colour Out of Space" is his early success at conveying the "Other" to the reader.  It also sets the tone for his work at pushing weird fiction in a direction that is spine-tingling, nightmarish and other-worldly, yet at the same time completely materialistic.  By definition, this story could certainly be called science fiction, yet by description it is anything but.  The growing sense of dread, the atmosphere of helpless doom and the realisation that the only hope lies in flight and willful forgetfulness is the antithesis of the more optimistic approach of sci fi, which is to exorcise the devil by naming him.  Here, he remains nameless and worse than malevolent, he is indifferent.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Review: The Illustrated Man

The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury (1951)

Summarising this one is easy:  It's a collection of Bradbury short stories that have no connection whatsoever to one another wrapped in a thin framing device that Bradbury himself forgets about a quarter into the book.

The eighteen stories here a mixed lot.  The horror stories, such as "The Veldt" and "Zero Hour" work mildly well while the sci fi stuff, such as "Kaleidoscope" and "Rocket Man" are unbelievably sentimental and twee.  And some seem just plain pointless.  Bradbury contends that he doesn't write science fiction, which is true.  He has zero interest in science or technology.  He doesn't even put enough effort into it to create an air of verisimilitude.  Instead, he uses the vocabulary largely for effect.  And in more than one story, there isn't any science fiction element at all.

In the end, this is typical Bradbury; sentimental, floridly written, deeply distrustful of technology, filled with snobbish disregard for the middlebrow and middle class, yet close enough to mainstream fiction to find a niche in the more upmarket magazines of the day.  It's also a read that's about as satisfying as making a meal out of orchids.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Review: The Wilt Alternative

The Wilt Alternative by Tom Sharpe (1979)

Henry Wilt's life never seems to go quite right.  Even though he's now head of liberal studies at his college, it gives him even more headaches than when he was a teacher because now he not only has to deal with crude students, but raving revolutionary instructors as well.  His home life isn't much better.  At his wife Eva's insistence, they now life in a great pile of a house where Eva can give full vent to her current enthusiasm for alternative living while their quadruplet daughters only become more horrifying as they grow older.  

Worst of all, Eva has rented out the attic flat to a German woman who Wilt moons after, regretting that he'd laid eyes on her twenty years too late.  No, actually, the worst is that the woman is a wanted terrorist and Wilt's home is about to become ground zero when the authorities try to arrest her.  Unfortunately for the terrorists and the authorities, neither has reckoned on what will ensue when the Wilt family is caught in the crossfire.

Tom Sharpe's strategy for his second book in his Wilt series is to amp up the farce to the nth degree.  It seems bad enough when Wilt has an alarming encounter with a rose bush, but that turns out to be only the prelude to a much larger symphony of madness.  Farce is next to impossible to do justice to in a review and the only way to appreciate Sharpe's humour is to read it, but one thing you can say is that he knows how to handle the beats of his plot.  Time and again when things are at their peak you expect him to pull off his trick and take his bow.  Instead, Sharpe keeps heading the ball into the air again and again until you wonder how much more insane things can possibly get.

But Sharpe is a merciful writer as well.  This time around, poor Inspector Flint, who was driven to distraction in  Wilt has the satisfaction of warning all and sundry about what is going to happen when Henry Wilt is involved and then sitting back and seeing himself proven right.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Review: Deadly City

Deadly City by Paul W Fairman AKA Ivar Jorgenson  (1953)

A man awakens two days after a brutal mugging only to discover that the whole of Chicago is devoid of human life.  Finding three other survivors, they learn that the city has been evacuated against the advance of alien invasion force.

This short story formed the basis of the science fiction film Target Earth and the plot is nearly identical.  If anything, the screenplay by Arch Obler managed to smooth out some of the faults.  This is one of those "frank" and "adult" stories that sci writers would try on during the '50s and like most of them, it's a bit embarrassing with its hooker, hairy ape, timid spinster and seedy hero.  Not surprisingly, there's lots of frank, adult drinking; frank, adult talk; frank, adult brawling and frank, adult shouting of "sex maniac" for good measure.  In other words, it tries too hard at a plot that the premise just can't support.

The greater problem is that Fairman fails on a fundamental level.  A short story is essentially a gag.  There has to be a twist or a revelation or a pay off that makes the story work.  Here, the pay off is a damp squib that is nothing more than a worn out deus ex machina that even H G Wells used out of desperation.

Sunday, 1 April 2012